Scooped! Or Maybe Not.

My heart sank a little when I saw the front page headline in the March 31 Herald-Citizen. “Cookeville couple survives cruise nightmare,” it read. I’d learned on Facebook of Richard and Terri Grogan’s recent misadventure on the Norwegian Sea. I planned to give the Grogans time to get home and regain their wits before asking if I could recount their harrowing tale in my column.

Now I’d been scooped by my own newspaper.

Or maybe not. Because while Ben Wheeler did a good job reporting the facts, I still had lots of questions. I knew what had happened. But what I really wanted to know was how it felt to be aboard a ship that might be going down. And how it felt to be rescued by a helicopter. So I called Richard Grogan, who agreed to meet with me.

Here’s what I learned. Though the Grogans are seasoned travelers, they’d never seen the Aurora Borealis. That was their goal when they boarded the Viking Sky cruise ship in late March. They went through the usual ho-hum safety drills and knew where to muster in the unlikely event of an emergency.

On March 23, a “cyclone storm” blew up as the ship was headed south off the coast of Norway. Fierce winds kicked up gigantic waves. The ship’s captain—whom Richard describes as one of the smartest and bravest men he’s ever encountered—tried to steer close to shore to avoid the worst of the storm. His efforts were unsuccessful.

“Terri and I were relaxing in a second-floor lounge when the ship began tilting heavily to the right,” Richard told me. “The piano and a huge potted plant slid clear across the room, as did all the tables and chairs.” The engines cut off and the ship’s horn began blaring. Seven shorts and one long, followed by an announcement over the loud speaker: THIS IS NOT A DRILL. ALL PASSENGERS REPORT TO YOUR MUSTER STATIONS IMMEDIATELY.

By the time Richard and Terri reached their station, which was six floors below and at the opposite end of the ship, crew members were already passing out life vests. “I looked up after buckling my vest and saw through the picture window an enormous wave coming straight at us,” Richard said. “It smacked the boat hard, broke the window and slammed several people against the opposite wall.”

Then frigid water began pouring into the ship.

I asked Richard if people were panicking. “Only one woman,” he told me. “She kept screaming WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” But most people remained eerily calm, waiting for the crew to tell them what to do next. “I wasn’t talking, but I was thinking,” Richard said. “I’d made up my mind that if the boat capsized, I was going to get Terri and myself out into the ocean and swim for shore. We likely wouldn’t make it, but death by hypothermia seemed preferable to death by drowning.”

What happened next? Tune in to next week’s column to find out.

(April 28, 2019)